Commentary Magazine

The Rise of the French Rothschilds, by Anka Muhlstein; Contre Bonne Fortune, by Guy de Rothschild

Frankfurt, Paris, New York

Baron James: The Rise of the French Rothschilds.
by Anka Muhlstein.
Vendome Press. 223 pp. $17.95.

Contre bonne fortune.
by Guy de Rothschild.
Belfond. 373 pp. 89 francs.

Early in 1982, a short essay appeared on the front page of Le Monde. The essay recounted in broad strokes a very full life in our century. It told of services rendered to the French nation in peacetime and war, and it told also, with more sorrow than bitterness, of insults suffered at the hands of bigots and opportunists. It described how the author’s father and uncles had been deprived of their citizenship for “fleeing before the German advance, instead of volunteering for the crematoria,” and of how their property had been taken from them and their families killed. The essay, steady, dignified, focused, closed with the author’s farewell to France—a France whose banking policy was being radically altered and whose economy was being wrecked by the Socialist government of François Mitterrand—and announced his intention, in the eighth decade of his life, of emigrating to the United States:

The French Rothschilds erred in believing they could evolve and develop with their times and in their own country; and they have suffered for it,

Jew under Pétain, outlaw under Mitterrand enough is enough. To have to rebuild from ruin twice in a lifetime is too much.

The author of this essay was the banker, industrialist, philanthropist, and sportsman Guy de Rothschild. He was and still is today the patriarch of the French branch of one of the most famous families to have emerged from two not unrelated events of the 18th century: the industrial revolution and Jewish emancipation.

Even by Jewish standards, the Rothschild family is exceptional. The enormous wealth accumulated by the five sons of Mayer Amschel Rothschild of Frankfurt in the early 19th century; their innovative brilliance in the banking profession; the durability of the French and British houses—all these had already become legendary in the Rothschild brothers’ own lifetimes, even though there really was nothing in their success that could not be explained by reference to supremely intelligent (and incidentally scrupulously honest) business practices. But there was always more to the Rothschilds than a genius for business. They also had a remarkable devotion to family and, some of them, to Judaism (or at least to Jewish values) which they were able to transmit from one generation to the next, unlike so many other families of great wealth whose heirs have either occupied themselves with utter frivolity or sought out activities calculated to destroy their own class.

Two recent books about the Rothschild family—one, Baron Guy’s autobiography, and the other, a biography of Baron James, founder of the French branch, by a Rothschild cousin—both stress the point that this quality of devotion, as much as the wealth itself, may have been what made the Rothschilds, in each generation, leaders not only of the Jewish community but also of the wider societies in which they lived.



Anka Muhlstein’s book opens, as do all Rothschild chronicles, with the patriarch of the clan, Mayer Amschel Rothschild of Frankfurt’s Judengasse. Mayer Amschel started life in his parents’ business, currency exchanging, but had the vision to understand that the big money was in loans and trade. He also secured the friendship and patronage of Prince Wilhelm of Hesse, which provided not just business opportunities but—even more important—permission to travel outside of Frankfurt, not routinely given to Jews.

By the time Mayer Amschel’s youngest son, James Mayer, went to Paris, patronage by a single prince was an archaic practice. With the Napoleonic period drawing to a close, the political map of Europe, as well as a number of basic assumptions about the conduct of business, had been changed forever. The great age of capitalism was beginning, and the key to it all was knowing how to make money make more money. This Nathan, the eldest son who had gone to London and quickly risen to an important position in the City, understood very well. He wanted his brothers to be in positions to take advantage of every opportunity. None did better at this than James, who was actually more daring than his revered elder brother. While Nathan, for example, mistrusted long-term investments in heavy industries, such as railroads, James become one of the pioneer investors in French rail in the 1840’s, and thereby added substantially to the family fortune.

The business successes of the brothers Rothschild were mind-boggling to their contemporaries, who looked on with awe as they became the greatest bankers in Europe, bankrolling states and making the wheels of commerce turn. A Rothschild leaving the stock exchange in a bad humor could set off a panic. Partly because of this high visibility, but also because it was in their nature, they cultivated stability and sobriety, qualities which they also admired in governments and international politics. Champions of order, they preferred constitutional monarchies to republics, and positively loathed war.



It is less the details of James’s business success, however, than his rise to power and influence in French society that is the subject of this informal, but well-informed, biography by his great-great-granddaughter. France during the Restoration and the July monarchy was reactionary in some ways, but cosmopolitan and tolerant in many others, so much so that James never felt the need to become a French citizen. The title of Baron, conferred on all five brothers by the Austro-Hungarian emperor, was spurned by Nathan, but delighted James, who served as the Austrian consul in Paris. (This in itself was more than a little ironic, given the fact that Vienna was so anti-Semitic that Jews were forbidden to own property there, and brother Salomon was forced to rent the finest dwelling in the city.)

By Mme. Muhlstein’s account, James was a very happy man. He lived for his work but did not fail to appreciate that Paris was the most exciting city of 19th-century Europe. Ahead of his fellow capitalists in most things, Baron James was among the first to seek out the friendship of writers and artists. Heine was close to the family and a regular at the dinner table, but there were many others as well, like Chopin, Delacroix, and Balzac, who dedicated one of his books to James and another to his wife. James also became a gastronome and wine drinker of note and succeeded, after years of effort, in acquiring the Chateau Lafite vineyard for which he eventually obtained the highest classification possible, premier des premiers grands crus.

Anti-Semitism in France grew increasingly virulent during Baron James’s lifetime (though the term itself did not come into use until the 1890’s). As both Guy de Rothschild and Anka Muhlstein point out, it served as a vehicle for the fusion of anti-capitalist or anti-bourgeois ideologies with traditional anti-Jewish feelings. Already hated for their beliefs, Jews in this period also came to be hated as malevolent economic sorcerers. Naturally, the Rothschilds were an easy target. James understood this quite well, and had no hesitation in fighting back. During the notorious Damascus blood-libel affair of 1840, he and his brothers mobilized the community (and the Austrian diplomatic corps) in defense of their Syrian fellow Jews whom the French government was at first inclined to sacrifice to its Middle Eastern policy. James’s son Alphonse carried on the tradition, incurring severe losses when he cut off his credit line to the Russian czar in protest against the pogroms of the late 19th century.



Inevitably, the Jewish question looms as large in Guy de Rothschild’s autobiography as it does in Mme. Muhlstein’s book. Yet the Rothschild manner, particularly where painful issues are concerned, is to exercise delicacy and restraint. Even if he objects to France’s Middle East policy, Guy de Rothschild understands the limits under which Charles de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou, the first two presidents of the Fifth Republic, labored in formulating it. His chapter on Pompidou in particular is written with an affection and respect growing out of many years of close collaboration. If Baron James, as we learn from Anka Muhlstein’s book, knew how to cultivate and utilize the leading ministers of his time, so too did his great-grandson Baron Guy, who was in large part responsible for Pompidou’s brilliant career. Today, of course, politics and finance are more strictly separated even in France than they were in the 19th, century. Still, Pompidou might not have risen quite so high in de Gaulle’s esteem had Guy de Rothschild not spotted his talent in the 50’s and offered him a career with Rothschild Frères, which led eventually to Pompidou’s directorship of the bank.

In 1967, de Gaulle shifted French policy away from support of Israel and toward the Arabs. The pretext, as dubious as it was hypocritical, was that Israel had fired the first shot in the Six-Day War of 1967; the real reason for the shift derived ultimately from a long-standing perception (or, more correctly, misperception) of where French interests in the region lay. Guy de Rothschild knew there was little he could do to change the French government’s attitude, but he believes that Pompidou, as de Gaulle’s successor, was far better disposed toward the state of Israel than other government officials. In an essay written a few days after Pompidou’s death in April 1974, he tried to explain this, though the result was not altogether convincing:

In foreign policy, Georges Pompidou shared de Gaulle’s conviction that Israel, outnumbered in the Arab world where it is, could not survive by force, but only by winning acceptance. In his view, no effort should be spared to achieve this, and he hoped Israel would show as much moderation and reserve as France itself showed toward former colonies. . . .

The full force of the irony may have escaped the author here, concerned as he was with eulogizing his great friend. The French “moderation” to which Rothschild refers led to ten years of colonial wars—which France ultimately lost. And there was something bizarre about urging moderation on the one and only country in the Middle East which had been practicing moderation. Still, one sympathizes with the way Rothschild, in his family’s best tradition, was trying to steer a middle course. Little could he know that within a very few years a new generation of French Jews would come to regard the established leaders of the French Jewish community as too reticent in defending their interests, and would demand a more aggressive and unapologetic line.

Where Guy remains most strikingly his great-grandfather’s child is in his love for and trust in France, at least until very recently. How could it be otherwise? The French Rothschilds, accepted and admired in the country of their adoption, have become a part of French national folklore (not to speak of French economic history). The relations between Guy de Rothschild and Georges Pompidou are in themselves proof enough, at least at the level of personal relations, that France’s republican institutions do indeed create a certain fraternité that transcends religion and class.

Yet reading Guy de Rothschild’s personal survey of French anti-Semitism, and bearing in mind his 1982 Le Monde essay, one has to ask oneself how confident he really feels. In his understated way he intimates a connection between anti-Semitism and the economic demagoguery that finally convinced him it was time to move on to New York—a city where, his cousin Anka Muhlstein reports, Baron James once refused to give his son permission to set up a branch of the family bank.



About the Author

Roger Kaplan has written widely on French politics and on Algeria’s Islamist insurgency of the 1990’s.

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